FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT'S THIRD INAUGURAL
With the Axis tearing Europe apart and threatening to dominate the rest of the free world, FDR delivered a powerful statement for the preservation of democracy in his third inaugural address. The United States was not yet at war -- Pearl Harbor would not be attacked for 11 more months -- but it was in the midst of a global crisis. So great was the sense of peril that Roosevelt felt the need to declare at one point, "No, democracy is not dying."
"The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history," he said, before tracing the lineage of the American "spirit" from the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact and all the way to the Gettysburg Address. The existential threat of war did not yet demand American intervention, FDR implied, but the United States must not revert to the kind of isolationism that people like Charles Lindbergh were advocating. "In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy," he said. "We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God."
Perhaps because of its abstract and philosophical tone, the address failed to rouse the crowd gathered on that cold January morning in 1941, and FDR told his advisors afterwards that he was disappointed with the speech. Prior to the inauguration, FDR had delivered two major addresses: a Dec. 29 fireside chat in which he declared that "we must be the great arsenal of democracy" and his famous "Four Freedoms" speech on Jan. 6. As a result, he felt the country was fed up with long pronouncements from its leader and settled on a shorter address. But the speech was of a piece with the campaign waged by FDR in late 1940 and early 1941 to pass the Lend-Lease Act and to place America more firmly on the side of Britain in the unfolding war. In that effort, he faced vehement opposition from isolationists in Congress. By casting the war as a fight for democracy, FDR boldly dared his political opponents to undermine an effort to rescue that dearly held American ideal.
JEFFERSON'S FIRST INAUGURAL
Remembered primarily as a call for unity in the aftermath of a divisive political campaign, Jefferson's first inaugural address was mostly concerned with politics at home. He emphasized the importance of majority rule, minority rights, and the peaceful transfer of power -- reminding Americans that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."
But Jefferson also held forth on the question of America's role in the world. He called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations," but "entangling alliances with none." The latter clause, quoted endlessly by isolationists, has been taken to mean that the United States should eschew international commitments and focus only on its own affairs. But Jefferson wasn't interested in cutting America off from the world -- his commitment to global commerce betrayed his internationalism. Still, he did not lament the fact that the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe."
Jefferson's election in 1800 -- sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800 -- marked the arrival of the United States as a democratic power and the first instance of a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. But if Jefferson's embrace of commerce was supposed to have signaled the country's arrival as an economic power, the condition of the capital during his inauguration revealed his country's youth. Legislators huddled in the corridors of the Capitol were frequently disturbed by the sound of gunfire from quail hunters a few hundred yards from the still-unfinished building. The inauguration, in fact, may have been held in the Senate chamber because it was one of the few public spaces in the capital that had been completed by 1801. And while Jefferson's arrival at his inauguration without the grand retinue on display at Washington and Adams's inaugurations has become part of the democratic mythology surrounding the third president, his simple entrance could just as easily have been a function of the fact that Pennsylvania Avenue was still littered with tree stumps at the time.